The Morning After

Chapter One

The throb behind Abigail’s eyes scraped at her temples like chiseled fingernails. She squeezed her lids tight. Was the sheet twisted around her? She patted her waist. No, it was her dress, the purple flowered sarong. One hand moved across her chest while the other slid down her hip. Strapless bra gone, no nylons. What the hell?

She inched the covers down, so her head didn’t jar, and eased her feet to the floor to sit on the edge of the bed. Last night’s mascara weighed heavily, stinging her eyes when she opened them. How disgusting. She hadn’t gone to bed without washing her face in fifteen years. With a hand to her forehead, she raised her gaze to the reflection in the full-length mirror on her closet door.

Her breath caught in her throat and Abigail froze. Another body, partially covered, came into focus behind her.

Think. The headache got in the way of last night’s memories, the strain not worth the pain.

And this was exactly why she never had more than a glass of wine. A bad headache and now a strange man in her bed. Her stomach lurched.

What have I done?

Had she made a fool of herself at her best friend’s wedding? She silently groaned. After three times a bridesmaid, to have just one marriage would be nice. Damn that biological clock.

Aching calves evoked images of the bar and dancing, dancing for hours. She could’ve danced all night. She should’ve. Maybe her head wouldn’t hurt so much. Damn tropical blitz things. They called them boat drinks, and they went down like fruit punch. Such cute pink and purple glasses, and they let you keep them. Abigail rubbed her temples. She must’ve tried to drink herself to a full set.

As delicately as possible, she rose, careful not to disturb her sleeping companion. Her head pounded with each carefully placed shuffled step to the bathroom. The last time she vomited, she was ten years old and sick on pumpkin pie. Vomiting was not an option.

Cold water in her face, a deep breath, three aspirin. She backed up to the sink, rested her bottom on the edge. Two more cleansing breaths and the queasiness passed.

Dancing and drinking and what? Think. The wedding was clear. Her oldest friend, Sue Ellen, had tied the knot for the third time. A Tahiti honeymoon prompted a sarong wearing wedding party and champagne served in plastic coconut shells. The affair, held at The Lonesome Steer Honky Tonk, had been pretty tacky considering the wealth of the new husband, JT Cushing, owner of the largest ranch this side of the Rio Grande. She hadn’t gone to the wedding with anyone, but she’d certainly come home with someone.

Tiptoeing back to the bedroom, Abigail leaned against the doorframe and considered her surprise bedmate. The sun, slanting rays from the window over the bed, held him in a spotlight—as if announcing the presence of a featured guest.

A moan. The man rolled to his back, kicking off covers. Abigail gasped. Her gentleman visitor wore only a bow tie and black socks.

She crept to the edge of the bed. His face was turned away, further hidden by red curls hanging down the nape of his neck and onto his cheek. A visual sweep of the attractive body brought a smile to her face when she paused on his more than ample endowments. A true redhead. An encounter of this magnitude should be easy to remember.

Abigail smiled in spite of her throbbing temples. Inching closer, she nudged his boots aside with her foot and leaned over to see his face. Mmm. He smelled good, like rich leather and fresh cut wood. As she bent to get a closer look, Kirby, her sixteen-pound Siamese cat, entered the room and announced his hunger.

The visitor stirred, grasped her arm, drawing her down across his hips.

He rose up on his elbows and looked at her. “So, Abby, you’re a morning person, are you?”

Abigail launched off the bed, trying not to come into contact with anymore of the warm body than she already had. Tripping over the boots, she ended up sprawled on the floor. “Who…” She gulped. “Who the hell are you?”

“Who am I? “Darlin’ I know I told you, you’ve got to believe it’s true.” He paused his singing. When she sat speechless, he sang out again, slightly off key. “Real love comes along once, and that real love is you.

“You sure as hell aren’t Lance Dugan.”

He sat upright, feet to the floor, and Abigail found herself eye level with embarrassment. With hands to her face, she pleaded in a quiet voice, mindful of her head still adjusting to sobriety. “Please, cover yourself. You look ridiculous.”

“Why, there’s a blow to a man’s ego. I hope you mean the bow tie, darlin’, and not my prodigious maleness.” The sheets rustled. “You can open your eyes now and greet your husband with a little more enthusiasm.”

Her hands slid from her eyes and splayed on her cheeks. She had to have heard him wrong. Large green eyes looked at her, eyes she thought were missing glasses; no more than a flicker of thought easing into her astonishment.

“W-what?”

“I’ve heard of shy newlyweds, but I would never have guessed you for shy. Abby, honey, don’t tell me you were that drunk. I knew you were more than tipsy, but not mind-numbing drunk.”

Speechless, she studied the thin lips forming a crooked smile, topped with a trim auburn mustache. She dug her fingers into the carpet, flashing on burying her fingers in his tousled copper curls while burying her tongue in his most kissable mouth. Her head spun and not from the lingering effects of tropical drinks.

“The night was all too perfect. Damn near a double wedding with Sue Ellen and JT.”

“Shut up.” She raised her voice as loud as her throbbing head would allow. “What…what the hell are you talking about?” Her fingers renewed their grasp on the carpeted floor.

“Abby…”

“Stop calling me Abby. My name is Abigail.”

“But last night you asked me to call you Abby.” He ran a hand through his jumble of curls. “You said only your mother and your husband could call you Abby. And since I’m not your mother…”

“And you’re not my husband. I don’t have a husb—”

“Ah, but you do now, Mrs. Bobby Stockwood. Although, I’m guessing you’d prefer Ms. Abigail Stockwood. Abby, you act like you’ve forgotten the most important night of our lives.” He leaned his elbows on his knees, smiling his kissable crooked smile. “I should make coffee while you take a shower. You look kind of sick.”

Sick wasn’t the half of it. More like insane.

His voice did ring sweetness when he used her name. Every time he said Abby, his voice caressed, sending a pleasurable warmth over her. She closed her eyes for a moment and recalled him on his knee in full tux, peeking from under the brim of a black Stetson. Her lids snapped up like the shade on a window.

“Oh, my gawd!”

“Abby?”

She stood awkwardly, the purple sarong impeding any grace she might possess. “Yes, make the coffee and I’ll take a shower.” A shower would give her time to retreat, to think. “The kitchen is upstairs, to the right of the front door.” She backed up a step, his gaze on her every movement, her gaze on his seductive mouth and sheet wrapped hips.

“Don’t much want to put my tux back on. Do you have something? Maybe some sweat pants.” His head tilted up then down, surveying her body. “I’m not much taller than you.”

Abigail nodded. She might’ve had a retort any other time for his lack of descriptive after giving her the once over, but the need to withdraw and think spurred her shaky legs across the room to her dresser in search of a pair of baggy, gray sweat pants. She grabbed a T-shirt from her old-clothes drawer and the sweats. For herself, she chose her oldest Levis and a plain white shirt.

“There’s another bathroom upstairs, beyond the kitchen, if you want to shower.” She tossed the sweats and T-shirt in his general direction and retreated to the bathroom.

Hot water soon pummeled the top of her head, washing away a film of drunken forgetfulness. The night came to her in disjointed scenes, as if looking at a photo album missing a few pictures. Stop action shots and posed smiling moments. Two-stepping with the redheaded stranger to the band’s rendition of Dugan’s Real Love at The Lonesome Steer Honky Tonk. A karaoke duet. Ordering another tropical concoction. Talking. Dancing cheek to cheek to Patsy Cline’s, Crazy. A faceless man in a black suit holding a bible while Red kissed the palm of her hand. A toast with yet another tropical concoction.

A knock on the door echoed in the bathroom, and the not so strange stranger entered her steamy domain. “Coffee on the counter by the sink. Strong and black, just the way I think you like it.”

She peeked around the shower curtain, caught a glimpse of a wave of his hand as he backed out the door.

When the water turned cool she shut it off. She took a long drink of coffee, black and strong, and yes, just the way she liked it, before toweling off. The foggy mirror matched the state of her thoughts as she moisturized her face, took her time blow-drying her long, brown hair and brushed her teeth.

Before last night, the probable outcome of her ordinary life had been clear—an average job netted average pay. Thirty-five and ticking. Her lifestyle smacked conservative with no one special in her future. Weary of dating, tired of moderately successful accountants and computer technicians and financial analysts, she wanted to break out of the ordinary.

Well, this morning sure hadn’t started ordinary.

A man named Stockwood, proclaiming to be her husband, cooked breakfast in her kitchen. Remembering the end of the night might be difficult, but she did remember the vows.

Lustful urges tugged from some vague memory of the evening. She struggled to recall the wedding night consummation with that gorgeous body, his hands and tongue roaming every inch. Imagination told the story of an unforgettable romp, but her memory failed her. With no choice but to confront her one-night stand, she shook her head and braced herself.

The aroma of coffee and cinnamon drifted down the hallway as she padded barefoot to the kitchen, Kirby close on her heals. The redheaded stranger leaned against the sink, cup in hand. Abigail snorted. In her haste to get him dressed and out of her bedroom, she’d given him the Christmas T-shirt. He looked ridiculous, yet undeniably masculine, with a Christmas mouse under a tree on his chest. He’d added wire-rimmed glasses to his casual ensemble. The face now looked complete.

“Hey, there’s my Abby. You look as good in jeans as you did in a sarong. Are you hungry? I made crepes with what I could find in your kitchen. Your spice cabinet is pure Texan: salt, pepper and Tabasco. But I figured you’d have a little rebel in you and kept searching. At least you have cinnamon which goes great with the apple jelly. Not to worry, I’m a gourmet cook and I’ll buy what we need.” He strode around the table to take her mug from her and continued his chatter. “Even if you aren’t feeling too hungry, you need to eat a little. Get some color back into your face. I’ve been keeping plates warm in the oven.” He pulled a chair from the table. “Sit down, Mrs. Stockwood. You can afford the calories this morning, darlin’, since you danced off so many last night.”

Abigail regarded the chair, reluctantly sitting. “Are you always so suave, or are you just trying to impress me this morning, Red?”

He slid a napkin from the table, spreading the cloth in her lap, letting his fingertips trail across her thighs. “Now you sound like the woman I swept off her feet. Got it back under control and ready to talk about our future?”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he didn’t give her a chance.

“Close your mouth, Abby,” he chided. “It’s not a becoming look for you.”

She inhaled, readying her retort, but didn’t have a chance to sling the words.

“Or maybe I’ll just close it for you.”

His mouth covered hers as his hand left the napkin to cup her breast. Her nipples puckered as fingertips trailed to her collarbone and paused at her chin. His kiss, soft and searching, robbed her of any protest she’d intended. The soft lips brushed her mouth, across her chin and up her cheek. Rivers of heat spread from her peaked nipples to her clenched thighs. She leaned into him. With a kiss to her forehead, he stood, and she nearly fell forward onto the table.

“You taste as good as honey to a bee. Just like last night. But you should eat before we go any further.” He walked to the coffee pot to refill their cups.

Speechless, she stared at his back. This man had her ready to kick him out one moment, and limp with desire the next.

“I hope you use my name, but if you insist, you can keep your own name. Course, since you’ve never been married and told me you’re aware of the old ticking clock, I would think you might want to shout the news out over the rooftops.”

His kiss still burned, but his words instantly doused the flame. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Hey, calm down. You’d think you’re the redhead. You’re the love of my life.”

“And you’re the ambiguity of mine.”

He put plates of crepes, three to a plate, and mugs of coffee on each side of the table before sitting in the chair opposite her. “I hope that means you love me. You do, don’t you?”

“What makes you think we have a future? We don’t even have a present.” The warm cinnamon smell drifted up, and she had to look away from her plate to concentrate on the handsome madman making wild suppositions. “I was impulsive, rash and careless last night. I’m quite sure whatever we did can be undone.”

“What you were was splendid and spirited. Look at us here; we have a present. And a beautiful future.” He thumped a fist over his heart. “It was definitely love at first sight this time.”

She lifted her coffee cup but froze before it reached her mouth. “What do you mean this time?” Over the rim of her cup, she studied him through narrowed eyes.

“I’ve been married a couple times before.” He smiled, an honest smile making his eyes crinkle. “But it doesn’t reflect on what we have now. This is real.”

“Real? You don’t even know me. What’s your definition of real?”

“Us.”

His smile nearly stopped her heart. Yes, she’d kissed that smile more than once last night, and this morning he tasted even better. But how could she trust her heart when she didn’t know if she could trust his sincerity? “I suppose real comes and goes with you, if you were really married before.”

He smoothed his mustache then ran the hand around the back of his neck. “My first marriage came a month out of high school. She chose me, and I was a horny teenager. We eloped across the border with a half dozen of our friends. Had one hell of a party. Granddad hauled us back, and let me stay tangled up in that mess until she couldn’t take my family any longer—and I couldn’t take her.”

Abigail sipped her coffee, intrigued by this calmer, more serious Red. “And number two?” Kirby stretched his front paws onto her chair. She absently petted him, waiting for Bobby’s explanation.

“Granddad made that match.”

“An arranged marriage?”

“Sort of, not exactly. I was convinced, let’s say.”

“Your grandfather must be extremely persuasive to overpower you. Unless you wanted to be convinced.”

“He’s persuasive.” A crooked smile flashed on his face. “My granddad and I do bump heads. But anyway, number two didn’t last either for obvious reasons.”

She slammed her cup to the table, coffee sloshed over the rim and Kirby darted under the table. “So you get married and divorced as often as most people take a vacation.”

A headshake accompanied a frown. “That was quite a few years ago. I promised myself, I’d never marry again unless it was exactly like it was last night.” The frown faded, the corner of his mouth ticked up. “We chose each other.”

“Nice stories, Red, but—”

“Please believe me, Abby. You’re different.” He stretched across the table and put her fork in her hand. “Eat your crepes before they’re cold. Here, I used extra butter when I cooked. You’ll love them this way. Since I figure I’ll be doing most of the cooking, I’ll always make sure it’s done the way you like it.” He winked and chattered on as he focused on his own breakfast. “You were so magnificent last night. Hells bells, you do a mean two-step. I’d have never gotten on my knees for a woman, but damn”—he shook his red locks—“you brought me to my knees. Love at first sight, married within hours of setting our eyes on each other. And God Almighty that first kiss. I tell you darlin’, there you were and—”

“Stop. Just stop. What makes you think you can casually two-step into my life, tell me who’s doing the cooking in my house, make crazy claims we’re married after a few dances and one damn Karaoke duet? If you think—”

“Ha. You remember the duet.”

“What?”

Islands in the Stream, perfect for us. Try a bite before they’re cold.”

Abigail nudged a rolled crepe around her plate, too dizzy with his words to eat.

“Hey, Abby. You said you loved me.” His voice quieted, the joking edge turned serious. “You were all shining with happiness and when you said it, I knew we’d found our soul mates.”

She looked up as he leaned toward her.

“You remember, don’t you, honey?” He stretched out a hand toward her.

Abigail cut off a hunk of crepe and lifted it above her plate, studying the jelly dripping from her fork as the emotion in his words dripped over her.

Trouble was, she did remember a good deal of the night. And the memories settled on her; a comfortable fondness for the man sitting across from her with his forehead wrinkled in concern and his emerald green eyes looking right through her. Could this be love? After one night with someone she didn’t know?

“But we can’t be legally married.” She let the bite of crepe fall to her plate. “Surely we have to file papers or something.”

“Minor legalities.”

“And after? I mean last night…did we? I don’t remember…in bed…”

“As far as what happened after we got here, well, all intentions were there.” He winked. But you fell asleep. You don’t hold your liquor too well, Mrs. Stockwood.” He took a bite, smiling as he chewed.

At least he hadn’t taken advantage of her drunken state. She put her elbows on the table and her head in her hands. How embarrassing.

“Don’t be embarrassed.”

Great, now the man was a mind reader. She peeked through her fingers.

“We’ll have plenty of sex-crazy nights, and I’ll do all those things you suggested before you conked out. I am definitely a man with a slow hand, which you stated as your preference, as well as being talented in other ways that could take us all night long to explore. Again, your suggestion.” He cocked an eyebrow and winked.

Gooseflesh traveled down the whole of her body. From what she’d seen in her bed this morning, he could no doubt fulfill all of her bedroom fantasies. And he cooked. And knew she worried about her biological clock. And couldn’t hold her liquor. He knew her better than most men did after months of dating. Something fluttered in her chest and a sigh escaped.

“Do you like to travel, Abby?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. But somehow you knew that, right? Apparently, you already know me backwards and forwards, so you’d also know I don’t get to do much traveling on my salary.”

“I kind of figured.”

Abigail put her fork down and sat back with her cup of coffee. “And?”

“I’m going to take a couple of weeks off work. Can you get some time off or maybe just quit?”

“Excuse me?”

“I want you to quit, darlin’. There’s no need for you to work. Then we can take off whenever we want. I can make you breakfast and bring it to you in bed, where I think we’ll spend a lot of time.” He smiled, took a healthy gulp of coffee and went back to his crepes. “We might eat supper out most nights. There’re some great places in Amarillo, and when we aren’t eating out, I’ll cook you gourmet meals, Mrs. Stockwood. And we’ll travel to all those places y—”

“No.” She stood, moved behind her chair and gripped the back. This couldn’t continue. Now that her head had cleared, this madness had to stop. If he assumed he could move in after a drunken night of fun, he was wrong. For all she knew, he was a gigolo who crashed weddings, taking advantage of women. “Listen, Red. I’m sorry if I…led you to believe…whatever it is you believe about us.” He opened his mouth, but Abigail held both palms up like a traffic cop. “No, let me finish. I might’ve got all caught up in the spirit of the Tahitian fling at The Lonesome Steer, and I’m sure we had one hell of a good time, but…but it’s the light of day now, and you need to mosey on back to where you’re from.”

His hands fell from the table as the smile dropped from his face. “Abby—”

She shook her head and jutted her chin up a notch.

“Abby—”

“Please leave.”

His sorrowful face was every bit as handsome as his smiling version.

The resolve that had set her shoulders stiff faltered, and she swallowed down her doubt, yet held her ground. This whole crazy morning was no more than a result of a crazy night.

e stood and leaned flat palms on each side of the plate. “I can see you’re a bit overwhelmed, but—”

“No buts.”

He straightened, ran a hand through unruly red locks. “Then…I guess…” His boots scraped the floor in a backward shuffle. “I guess this is…” A scan of the breakfast counter, netted keys and a wallet she hadn’t noticed. They appeared to weigh fifty pounds with the apparent effort it took for him to lift them. The keys jangled against the palm of his hand while he studied them as if he couldn’t be sure they were his.

The seconds slipped away. Damn, he was handsome. Damn, he kissed like no one she’d ever kissed before. But this had snowballed; his presumptions and ramblings about quitting work and changing her life in one broad sweep? She had to think.

He’d gone into slow mode as he faced her. Pools of green doused her with such passion she had to look away.

“Goodbye...for now.” Drawing a breath, he paused. “I’m willing to give you some time to think. I know you’ll come to your senses when you remember…everything.”

The door clicked, closing behind him.

She sat motionless. Think, Abigail. But her butt stayed glued to the chair at the sound of wheels on the street.

Her stomach growled. Breakfast did look good. Reluctantly, she took a bite. And a second. The man sure as hell could make breakfast from nothing. She refilled her coffee cup—coffee better than any she’d ever been able to brew with that pot.

Remorse nagged at her. But why? Over a one-night stand? She sipped and wondered how a redheaded, gabby gourmet found that little corner of her heart.

Kirby’s mournful plea came from under the table. “Oh, all right, you hungry kitty. Now he’s gone, you’ve found your voice again? He does tend to steal all the air from a room, doesn’t he?” She lifted Kirby’s dish and filled it with nuggets. “If you think Bobby Stockwood’s constant banter is breath taking, you should kiss him. Talk about stealing your air.”

Kirby dove into his dish, and she sat down to savor her last bite then tugged Bobby’s plate across the table to begin on his. The man had a way with words and knew his way around the kitchen. As she chewed, she stared at the door he’d closed behind him. That’s when it hit her, and she laughed. He’d walked out wearing her sweat pants and a Christmas mouse T-shirt.

When her laughter quieted, the heavy silence settled around her.

No one had ever called her splendid and spirited, much less magnificent.